Why democracy isn't always needed in an agency

To succeed in the cut throat business environment today, the call for brands to be disruptors in their respective fields is louder than ever. According to Lou Dela Pena, CEO, Publicis Communications Singapore, at a Dscoop Asia event yesterday morning, agencies too are not exempt from this form of transformation.

She added that the agency of the future is now no longer in years to come but rather "it is every three months".

"That's how fast change is, and how volatile it is. That's how vulnerable we are," she added. As such disruption and innovation is needed.

"Innovation is not about creating one thing, it is doing the unknown and taking a big bet or a big risk in doing that. I think transformation is at two speeds," She said adding that in the creative field, if you are not relevant and top of the mind, and you don’t use fame as a currency, you might as well close down.

Sharing Publicis’ journey from an agency brand which is seen as “dusty” and “traditional”, Dela Pena explained the actions and processes taken to transform the agency’s culture. She added that to win and be forward thinking, agencies need to have appetite for change and taking risks.

"In 2014 we were old fashioned, and this is an understatement. We were very traditional, we were only printing brochures and print ads for real estate companies. We weren't famous for anything, in fact, nobody thought of us," she said. To change that disruption was necessary.

She added that disruption also doesn't work unless it is quick, big and ambitious. And that's the direction she wanted the agency to head towards.

And so two years and a bit later, she explained the agency has doubled in headcount with 40% of its revenue coming in from digital. The agency has very diverse client base, from healthcare, financial services, travel to "frozen chicken" and  80% of its clients are all in for social, digital and design thinking and innovation.

Speaking about what led her to choose Publicis from the "a dozen of other offers" out there, she said it was the appetite and desire for change. If there was no real will to change and will leave things behind, it was not possible to achieve transformation and realise ambitions, she said.

“In 2014, I met the global CEO (of Publicis) and we just hit it off and I thought you know what, the desire for change is at the top,” she added.

Change has to come from the top

And while democracy is on everyone's minds today, Dela Pena doesn't necessarily think it is necessary in the agency. Not every one needs a vote, she explained. But what she definitely champions is meritocracy.

“Whether you are receptionist or an account director, business leader or GM, you have to earn your right to say something,” she explained. Meritocracy, she added, is also key in transforming a business, however, it is something which is hard to do and must come from the top simply because a true meritocracy means no hierarchy.

In Publicis, it's me, and then there's everyone else. There is no organisational chart. Just knock on the door, Whatsapp, talk to the person in charge, make it happen.

She added, in order to truly achieve meritocracy, the best ideas have to be filtered out and recognised.

“We are like a bunch of Labrador retrievers who do it for the pat on the back, which is our currency. It is all about fame, it is recognition and it is culture,” she added.

Moving fast and failing fast

The culture of failing fast has risen in recent years as more marketers and agencies look to embrace innovation in their teams. This is no different for Publicis Singapore under Dela Pena's leadership.

“We had this idea of moving fast and failing fast and one of the paradigm shifts was ensuring we did not think like an agency. We wanted to see ourselves as a startup,” Dela Pena said. What this meant was taking away hierarchies, silos and having many conversations and standing meetings.

This commitment to change allowed the agency to turn things around in a period of 10 months, she added.

To turn things around in just 10 months in a highly volatile industry like advertising in Singapore, meant that we had to experiment and prototype. Do, learn and do again.

She added that Publicis had the experience of losing 13 pitches, which meant having 13 rejections before clinching its first ‘Yes’.

“At the end of the 10th month we won our first global piece of business, and this is because of the attitude of moving fast and failing fast,” Dela Pena added.

Making tough decisions for the transformation of culture

In creating the change that was needed for the agency to move forward and transform with culture, Dela Pena shared that hard decisions needed to be made. On two occasions, she found that she had to make the choice of letting go of employees connected to key revenue as well as close friends.

"We have in the past let go of people with attachments to clients and money that would absolutely threaten our business. But they were in the way of building our culture," she said

A year into the CEO role, she found that she had to let go of an extremely good friend and she did not know what to do. But according to her boss at the time, some people are often only there for a season.

“As we're changing, I know we will leave people, sometimes clients and ways of doing things behind. Because the rate of change in today's world is exponential, and there is nothing bigger than the business but the business itself,” Dela Pena said.

Hence if the top executive is given the remit to change, and he or she has everything in place to spark that change, there needs to be an appetite to make the right choices, even the ones which are painful and difficult.

According to Dela Pena, having young people in an organisation is crucial to transforming a business and culture through innovation. Hence, Millennials play an important role.

“There are many papers that say, we can't trust this generation, they are tricky, they change their minds, they are entitled, they are a strawberry generation, they are oversensitive, they are not loyal to you, in Singapore they move for $500,” Dela Pena said. However, she explained that in entrusting and empowering Millennials is what helped Publicis to innovate as an agency. Currently, 40% of its workforce is below the age of 28.

Publicis in Singapore does not have a Millennial program. Publicis Singapore is run by Millennials.

To empower Millennials, Dela Pena stressed the importance of creating an environment where they can ask for permission to suggest great ideas to be implemented. They need an environment where they are able to do things and be forgiven after.

"This is an instinctive way to innovate our business because in three years they will run our industry," she concluded.